It is Saturday morning of Labor Day weekend. I sent the rest of the family off to the opening day of dove season so that I could have a few quiet hours to read and catch up on the load of appraisals piled up on my desk. Rather than launch into the appraisal work, I decided to complete the necessary task of finishing the latest book on art fraud to be released, Caveat Emptor-The Secret Life of an American Forger. Note that this is a necessary task, not a pleasurable, enthralling, or entertaining one. This memoir which lists Ken Perenyi as its author but was very likely largely written by the Denis Donavan, the man credited on the acknowledgement page for his “indefatigable work on the computer,” covers the long and astoundingly perverse career of Perenyi as a forger of paintings.
The book opens with 1993 scene of Perenyi withdrawing the cash proceeds from a sale of a pair of Martin Johnson Heade hummingbirds that he had consigned to Christies-London from his Harrods bank account, the equivalent of $90,000. The reader is then treated to an account of where it all began, the late 60’s in Bergen County, NJ, with Perenyi as an socially inept high school flunkie who had no interest in learning anything that would lead to an honest living in the trade school that he attended. By happenstance, this pimply-faced teenager crossed paths with a group of twenty-somethings that were part of the art scene in New York City at the time and had rented an old, mysterious house nearby. They quickly took him in and introduced him to the free-love, drug-induced, hard partying lifestyle prevalent in the “mind-expanding” youth culture of the time. His new friends got him laid and gave him free drugs. They introduced him to minor celebrities in the worlds of fashion and art. They took him to clubs and gallery openings. What teenager without a moral compass wouldn’t have been excited to be accepted into the sophisticated adult world? This was his first exposure to art. He did not grow up taking painting lessons and visiting museums. His new friends also taught him the importance of avoiding the draft at all costs. Better to convince the military psychiatrists that you are a degenerate and get a I-Y deferral than be required to do military service.
When one of his art friends, Tom Daly, suggested that he follow the example of many generations of art students before him and start learning to paint by copying the works of old master painters, he was surprised with Perenyi’s facility with a brush. He copied Rembrandt, Hironymous Bosch and many others. Perenyi began to pay attention to the details of these pieces, what elements made up an artist’s style, what made a painting look old, the importance attached by experts to the age and make-up of the supporting canvas or panel. He worked in a restoration studio for a few years, learning all the tricks of the trade to restore older paintings and seeing the older pieces intimately. He saw firsthand the structure of older stretchers, the effects of honest aging on canvas, panel and paint. And, he began to experiment with faking these older paintings.
He drifted through life with a strong interest in the lifestyle afforded by lots of cash but no interest in developing honest skills to make a living. He also learned that a quick theft would net piles of money, while long days at any office were never going to make the kind of money he liked to spend. After reading a book on Han Van Meegeren, the Dutch art forger of the 1930s-40s who introduced whole new genre to Vermeers’ work and became a lavishly successful art forger, Perenyi was hooked. He began to try his hand at forgery.
At first, his efforts were slow. He sold a painting here or there to a dealer when he was hard-up for cash. He started with Dutch and Flemish-style unsigned paintings. When he progressed to copying known artists, he signed the paintings with the copied-artist’s signature but did not provide fake provenance or make any claims of attribution. He just showed up at various galleries with paintings in tow and let the dealers take a look. Acting as an unknowledgeable heir or unwitting garage-sale purchaser of a valuable painting and playing into the dealers’ greed to get what they considered very valuable paintings from the hands of rube was part of the ploy. Perenyi got special joy from beating the dealers at their own game. He justified his crimes with the knowledge that they were trying to strip the paintings cheaply from an unsophisticated owner and deserved what they got. He often added to this ruse by pretended coyness when a first purchase offer was made. This usually drove the offer price up.
Over the years, Perenyi honed his skills at fraudulent copies as well as his methodology of delivery to the market. He developed several fences who were aware that the paintings were fakes and were more than willing to sell them into the market and split the profits. He also developed extensive systems for living off the efforts of others and stealing whatever he wanted or needed. He developed expensive tastes for antique furniture and decorations. He proudly recounts the many times he and cohorts showed up with moving vans and loaded them up with expensive furnishings, from a small museum, a failed auction house, a boarding house in which he had resided. There is no sense of shame in these tales. Do not read this book thinking that it will end with any understanding of the moral depravity of the activities. These tales are told with the gleeful boastfulness of a megalomaniac who knows that the statute of limitations has expired and he has skirted the law.
In the 1970’s, about the time the marketplace was glutted with his “ Dutch and Flemish-school” paintings, Perenyi met an eccentric collector of American paintings, Jimmy Ricau. Ricau had acquired a large mansion in Piermont, NY and had filled it, basement to attic with Empire furniture, American paintings and Greco-Roman sculpture. Ricau became aware of Perenyi’s abilities to paint fakes. Ricau had a deep disdain for dealers of art and decided that his revenge would be to encourage Perenyi to branch into this field. Using his own collection of authentic American paintings, he tutored Perenyi in important connoisseurship points of late 19th C. American School paintings. He showed Perenyi the various supports favored by these artists, talked with him about the finer style points favored by collectors. He introduced such artists as John F. Peto, Raphaelle Peale, John F. Francis, Levi W. Prentice, James F. Butterworth, Antonio Jacobsen, William A. Walker, George Catlin, Henry Inman, Charles Bird King and Martin Johnson Heade to Perenyi. This field of art was quite hot at the time, and Perenyi’s fakes sold well. Although Perenyi himself was not yet approaching auction houses to sell his paintings, many of the paintings found their way to auction.
Perenyi and his partner Jose had moved to Tampa, Florida. They bought a complex of buildings and set up a restoration facility on one side and an antique furniture store on the other side. They became quite popular as restorers. Ken would restore paintings in the morning and paint fake ones in the afternoons. He met many influential people and sold them fakes as well as supplying a growing number of fences. At the prompting of one fence who said that Alexander Calder was “hot” and could be easily faked, Perenyi did a suite of large gouache paintings in his style. After an extended trip to London and Bath, Perenyi began to add 19th C. British School sporting paintings to his repertoire. He copied John F. Herring, James Seymour, Sartorious and many others of the era. The fact that his paintings kept showing up at auction and selling well emboldened him to start consigning the pieces for auction himself. He offered paintings in London and at smaller auction houses in the outlying counties. He eventually offered some pieces at Sotheby’s and Christies in New York. His biggest scores were both “Martin Johnson Heade” hummingbird and orchid paintings. The first he consigned to Christies-London and it was shipped to New York for sale. That is the sale that netted the $ 90,000 pay-day discussed in the opening pages. The second was consigned to Sotheby’s in 1994 and brought over $ 700,000 at auction.
In the 1990’s, James Wynne and the special agents of the FBI’s art squad did open a five-year long investigation of Perenyi. Many of his fake paintings had begun to surface at auction and the bureau had ample evidence that traced the paintings back to their source. However, it is not illegal to sell reproductions of an artist’s work. It is only illegal to misrepresent them as by the hand of the artist. Ever the wily fox, Perenyi was very suspicious of any cronies from the past who showed up wanting to talk about their exploits. He correctly assumed that they had been sent to him wearing recording devices in order to get him to admit knowledge that the paintings were being sold as fakes. Perenyi got himself a good lawyer and just waited out the investigation. He was never indicted. He speculates openly in the book that this very likely had to do with the fact that the duped auction houses did not want public attention drawn to his exploits since there would be public humiliation and likely financial liability for them when purchasers heard the news. He states that the auction houses likely did all they could to scuttle or delay the investigation until the statute of limitations expired.
I added this book to a growing subset of books in my library that cover the subject of fakes and frauds. Most are written long after the events by a historian who has spent the time to research all the shenanigans of a particular artiste-de-la-fraud. Most of these books also have some moral redemption in them because they recount the fatal flaws that lead to the unmasking of the lies and report on the legal trouble encountered by all who participated. There always does seem to be an element of glee in fooling the art world’s so-called experts woven into the motivations of the copyist. I collect and read this type of book for many reasons. First, as an art advisor and appraiser, I read them defensively. If I have in my knowledge base that fact that certain artists were successfully faked for long periods of time, it makes my antennae that much more sensitive as I examine the next painting. If I am aware of some of the many methodologies employed by the crooks, I can be aware of the limitations of examination while being aware that even the best in the field are sometimes fooled. I stated up front that reading this book was a necessary task. I found myself cringing at every page turn. I find it appalling that Perenyi duped people for so many years with his fake paintings with no legal consequences and doubly insulting that this book is his venue to brag about it. While I had to read it, and feel like I had to report on it in this blog, my greatest wish would be that the book would flop, that it would be given no press coverage and that Perenyi would die in oblivion. It is not a likely scenario in our prurient culture that absorbs and celebrates such anti-heroes with more enthusiasm than we give to people who make real contributions to society. Perenyi will likely get the 15-minutes of fame that he seeks from publishing this book. The book’s afterward states that he continues to pump fake paintings into the marketplace from his Florida studio and that they are collected as reproductions or as “Perenyi-copies.” I get nauseated just thinking about it.
Added to this Post on February 15, 2014
Hello Readers of this Blog Post,
When I first posted this article and started getting replies, I determined to post all that came in, regardless of viewpoint…with only two stipulations, the reply had to be cogently written and without profanity. You should know that today I am changing that policy. I have suspected all along that Perenyi himself, under the guise of a fake internet persona (of course) was offering up many of the justifications of his actions and defenses for this book. Why? Well to stir the pot and keep the book sales going…. duh. I am now getting replies from his ghost writer and the friend who suggested the name for the book. Sorry. I have played into the marketing role for this book long enough. Even my participation in the “CBS Sunday Morning” show is something I have grown to regret since the show gave many minutes of air time to a sentimentalized interview with Perenyi and about 15 seconds to the rebuttal. There will be no more posts on this topic. Write me privately if you wish. I will always read them.